6: Hercules (b.c.1754) was America’s first celebrity chef, even though he was enslaved, legally the property of George Washington.
According to Mount Vernon researchers, Hercules was born c.1754. As a young teenager, he was working as a ferryman for Washington’s neighbor, John Posey, and then mortgaged to Washington in 1767. His name first appears on a taxables list for the estate in 1770. Since slaves were listed at age 16, it’s a reasonable guess that Hercules was born c.1754. In his early 20s, he married Lame Alice (d.1787), a seamstress, one of Martha Washington’s slaves from her first marriage, and they had three children
It’s not clear when Hercules started working in the kitchen, but we do know that by 1786, Hercules was chief cook at Mount Vernon. This is the kitchen today at Mount Vernon:
Notice the open hearth. One reason that slave owners put slaves to work in the kitchen was because in colonial days, cooking was hot, dangerous, and demanding. There’s a reason why the expression “slaving over a hot stove” crept into everyday American English. Heavy iron pots were hung on spits at different heights, depending on what was being cooked. It was not unusual for women in the kitchen to have their long dresses catch on fire. Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857) described Hercules as a man of average height, but with powerful muscles. Indeed, kitchen work would have demanded a lot of muscles.
When the newly-elected President Washington went to the temporary capital in New York in 1789, he took several slaves with him, but not Hercules. Samuel Fraunces (of Fraunces Tavern fame) was in charge of the household staff of about 20. When the temporary capital moved to Philadelphia, Hercules was brought up from Mount Vernon. Washington’s first chef was a hired white man, John Vicar, but Washington seems to have missed Hercules’ homestyle cooking, and in 1791, he dismissed Vicar and put Hercules in charge of the kitchen and dining room, overseeing the work of a staff that included German and French cooks.
The Philadelphia Executive Mansion was Robert Morris’ house. In the drawing, Hercules appears between John Adams and George Washington.
“Uncle Harkless,” as he was sometimes known, was precise and demanding, and not always beloved by his underlings. Custis said, “Under his iron discipline, wo[e] to his underlings if speck or spot could be discovered on the tables or dressers, or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver.” He also described Hercules as a “a celebrated artiste . . . as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States.”
He was also described as a “dandy” for his preference for nice clothes. He was allowed to sell his leftovers, and made a good living—around $200 a year, or about four times the average worker’s salary. Around the city, he was known for his expensive velvet jackets, silk shorts, and gold-tipped walking stick.
Under Pennsylvania law, any slave who had been in the state for six months could claim freedom. Washington was careful to rotate his slaves back and forth between Philadelphia and Mount Vernon. On one of those rotations in early 1797, while Washington was back in Philadelphia, Hercules was temporarily demoted from the Mount Vernon kitchen to outdoor work as a bricklayer or gardener.
On February 22, 1797, Washington’s birthday, Hercules ran away. Washington made some serious effort to track him down, but never found him. Many believed that he was simply living under the radar in Philadelphia, where he had made many friends. In 1801, Martha Washington received a report that he was in New York. Washington’s slaves had been freed after his death, but Hercules’ whereabouts remained unknown.
The portrait below, painted in 1796 by the famous Gilbert Stuart, is believed to be Hercules: